The night was young.
The winds were ice cold.
The settlement of huts, protected within fences made of dried wood and loose stones, stood isolated within the meadow. The fire-torches had been put out intentionally; word was that a Hayacree platoon had been spotted not too far away.
A tiny lamp flickered inside one of the huts, barely revealing the family of four and the outsider. The mother huddled with her little girl inside a thick blanket, choosing to stay in the dark corner. The teenager and the father, wearing thick tunics, sat closest to the lamp facing Arjuna.
“Avanti does not care for us, but they don’t harm us either,” said Ballum, the father.
The teenager, however, did not hold back his words. “That’s only because they find their virgins here,” he hissed.
“Kasan!” the mother warned from the darkness behind.
“He speaks no lie,” Ballum reasoned in a gentle voice.
The boy continued. “Raja Suraathana is nothing but a eunuch who lives off the glory of his forefathers. Avanti’s riders and soldiers work for their lords now, pimping their way around and harassing villagers like us,” and he took a brief pause, his gaze dropped to the flickering light. “I want to be a fighter like you. I must become capable of protecting my sister.”
Arjuna chose to remain silent.
“We save that for another time, Kasan. A bigger threat awaits us tonight,” Ballum said and then turned to Arjuna. “You have fifty-seven men, and what I saw were close to a hundred of the Hayacree, or maybe even more. Tell me the truth, stranger: what are our chances?”
Arjuna gestured Ballum to stop, his ears straining to catch the faintest of sounds.
His eyes met Ballum’s.
“They are here,” he said, and then stubbed out the burning wick with his fingers.